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Each January, Americans commemorate the birthday of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Junior. This year’s commemoration may mean just a little more for some Las Vegans. Some of them were there half a century ago when Dr. King spoke in Las Vegas.
The civil rights leader made two speeches in Las Vegas on April 26, 1964. He came to town at the invitation of the local NAACP, headed by the Reverend Marion Bennett, a longtime local minister and later an assemblyman. Dr. King was to speak at the organization’s annual Freedom Banquet, but he also would address a rally open to the public. Local leaders had won the right to patronize once segregated casinos and the promise of better jobs, but they hoped King would reinvigorate the local movement.
King arrived the day before, and the Clark County sheriff’s office and the NAACP provided security. He stayed in a suite at the Sands, where he probably wouldn’t have been welcome a few years before. On Sunday the twenty-sixth, he spoke at a rally at the Convention Center. More than 1,200 people came to hear him, from all walks of southern Nevada life. That night, he spoke at the banquet, which sold tickets at ten dollars per person in those less inflationary times. A galaxy of leaders attended … Governor Grant Sawyer and Las Vegas Mayor Oran Gragson, both advocates of civil rights, and Dr. James McMillan and David Hoggard, among others involved in the local movement.
During his speeches, King told his listeners to, as he put it, “learn to live together as brothers or we will perish together as fools.” He urged religious leaders on all sides to support civil rights more strongly.
One of those who attended both events, Ralph Denton, later recalled that King said much the same thing in both speeches, but used different metaphors and language to reach his different audiences—the masses at the rally and the more elite residents at the banquet. Denton said the speech helped inspire his decision to run for Congress later that year.
While Denton lost that election, for the NAACP, his speech had the desired effect. Its events began drawing more attendees, who became more active. Membership increased. So did support from hotel-casino operators, though still less than civil rights leaders would have preferred. Both Mayor Gragson and civil rights leader Bob Bailey later said that King improved the atmosphere for the movement, because King’s presence meant that the local leadership and its goals mattered.
King never returned to Las Vegas. Someday he might have but his life was cut short, just under four years after his one trip to Las Vegas that inspired so many. In the years after his death, civil rights leaders would obtain a consent decree to try to force more minority hiring at casinos. They also won a hard-fought federal court ruling in favor of school integration with a controversial busing program. Meanwhile, we’re all still trying to learn to live together as brothers, as Dr. King told us to do.